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Mike Baumgartner does not, at first glance, fit any known terrorist profile. Mike stands 5 feet, 1 inch high. He was sent to Washington, D.C., as a representative of Mrs. Mueller’s fourth-grade class at the Our Lady of Peace School in Minneapolis. His assignment was to have his picture taken at local sites of interest, so Mrs. Mueller’s students could learn about another area of the country.
Also, he’s made of butcher paper. The flesh-and-blood Mike Baumgartner, son of a friend of mine, made a cutout version of himself, drew clothes and features on it in crayon, and stuffed it into a 9-by-12 Manila envelope. “I am anxious to learn what it is like to live in your state,” read the paper Mike’s letter of introduction.
Mike learned, all right. Mike learned, through encounters with three different law-enforcement agencies, that in the District these days, being a little unusual-looking is enough to qualify you as a security threat.
Mike arrived just in time for the President’s Day snowstorm. In order to take his picture in front of the 4-foot snowbanks, I reinforced his lightweight body with cardboard and taped him to a tripod. The neighbors chuckled at the sight of Mike, with his big blue eyes, spiky brown crew cut, and too-big yellow hands, posed in front of a snowbound car on 17th Street. Mike might have felt a warm sense of welcome from the citizens of Washington. It was not to last.
Two technical difficulties became apparent the first time we ventured beyond the neighborhood. First, Mike was very fragile. A leg, amputated as he was being loaded into the car, had to be mended with masking tape. Second, in a Washington preparing for war, it was becoming difficult to get close to any of the major sights by car.
Our first destination was supposed to be the Jefferson Memorial. The nearest an ordinary car can park is about a quarter of a mile away. When we attempted the trip from the nearest parking space, a light breeze off the Potomac lashed at Mike’s spindly arms, making the journey impossible, so we gave up for the day.
A couple of weeks later, we drove to Capitol Hill, where I lucked out and found a parking place just behind the Supreme Court. The wind had picked up that day, too, so I positioned Mike on the steps leading up to the court, where he was sheltered by a marble balustrade. Stepping back to get the building in the shot, I was startled by a Supreme Court police officer who came up behind me and announced, “You can’t put that there.”
I looked at Mike’s open, Midwest-friendly grin and said, “It’s a piece of paper. I’m afraid the wind will tear his arms off if I can’t put him behind that pillar.” The cop gave Mike and me a break. “Hurry up and take the picture before the others see,” he said. Not wanting to think about who or where “the others” might be, I quickly took the shot.
Across the street, at the Capitol, we navigated the Jersey barriers and fences surrounding the construction site for the new, security-enhanced visitors’ center. The loss of the old trees there tugged at my heart, but it did make it easier to get a picture of Mike against the silhouette of the Capitol dome.
The sun was setting, so I continued to the west steps, where I had a good shot of Mike with the pink evening sky and the Washington Monument behind him. But no sooner had I snapped a picture than the law was on the scene again.
“What’s that?” a Capitol Hill policeman asked from behind opaque Oakley M Frames. I thought the officer would laugh when he learned how innocuous Mike’s mission was, but he never seemed to stand down from orange alert.
“This is 10-year-old Mike Baumgartner from Minneapolis,” I said.
“What are you doing with it?”
“I’m taking his picture with the monuments so his class can learn about other parts of the country. I’m learning that it’s not easy to take pictures in Washington at the moment.”
“That’s right,” he agreed.
If law enforcement was going to be everywhere, I thought, why not make it part of the project? “Would you mind if I took his picture with you?” I asked.
“That’s not allowed,” he said.
“You’re not allowed to have your picture taken?” I asked.
I folded Mike up and headed back to the car, hoping he wasn’t taking all of this personally.
Thinking Mike’s D.C. education should include a lesson in diplomacy, I set him in front of the Embassy of Argentina on New Hampshire Avenue. I had just snapped the shutter when the door opened and a security guard popped out. Glaring, he closed the door behind him and started down the steps. “I’m just taking a picture!” I called. Then Mike and I high-tailed it out of there.
The one shot I really wanted to take was of Mike’s cutout self with the George and Laura Bush cutouts that tourists pay to pose with. Having gotten a tip that the cutout people always work the long lines waiting for tickets for the White House tour, I arrived at the visitors’ center at 6:30 one morning. A sign in the window said that tours were canceled indefinitely. No tours, no tourists, and
who knows what happened to the guys who made their living with cardboard George
With April approaching and Mike scheduled to go back to Minnesota soon, I caught a break between waves of showers to take him down to the west end of the Mall. I prepared myself to answer anyone who thought the sight of Mike Baumgartner posed in front of the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials was irreverent. Mike’s mission, after all, was to educate his classmates on the events behind those memorials.
But none of the other tourists objected to my photographs. The only objection came, yet again, from the Manin this case, the U.S. Park Police. We were halfway up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when a bullhorn sounded from a truck parked below: “You can’t take that thing into the chamber.”
We walked back down to talk to the police, and I asked how far Mike was allowed to go. They said he had to stop where the marble steps began. If I left Mike behind, I could go all the way upI guess I don’t fit the terrorist profile, at least not yet.
On the top nonmarble step, I took two pictures of Mike. Over his shoulder, I looked up at the placid seated statue of Abraham Lincoln. Even the Great Liberator could not grant Mike Baumgartner the freedom to come inside and have his picture taken. CP